December 18, 2009

Year in Review: The Gentlemen

We all know the stories of the top men in tennis this year -- of course Roger Federer regained his year-end number #1 ranking on the heels of earning the career Grand Slam and setting the record for Major titles. And we know of Rafael Nadal's struggles during the latter part of the year.

Somewhat surprisingly, there were a few big movers even among the most elite players -- Juan Martin Del Potro leapt into the top five while both Robin Soderling and Fernando Verdasco made their top-ten debuts. And as they rose, other must fall of course -- unfortunately that group included my dear James Blake, who ended the year at #44.

But those moves are nothing compared to some other players who made a big name for themselves this year, both through success and through failure. I'm going to start with the good news.

Biggest Comebacks

Forget Kim Clijsters and Justin Henin. The world of men's tennis in 2009 was also one of comebacks.

Lleyton Hewitt fell out of the top 100 for a brief time in February -- the first time he'd hit double digits since the turn of the decade. Recovering from a hip injury, the Australian lost in the first round of his hometown Grand Slam, but proved to be a formidable threat to seeded players in tournaments after that. He won his first title in over two years by beating Wayne Odesnik in Houston and narrowly missed the semis at Wimbledon after a nearly four-hour match with Andy Roddick. While he had some trouble cracking the most elite players, he did notch a tough win over James Blake, back when he was ranked #13, and a straight-set victory over DelPo at the All England club. For his efforts, he rose forty-five spots to end the year at #22.

Tommy Haas has had some tough luck recently, but you'd never know it from his performance on the court. First he was allegedly poisoned during Germany's Davis Cup match against Russia a few years back, and then a few weeks ago he was diagnosed with swine flu. Even still the gorgeous German had a stand-out year, winning his first championship since 2007 in Halle by beating Novak Djokovic in the final and taking the first two sets from Roger Federer in the Roland Garros fourth round. He made the semis at Wimbledon, his best-ever performance there and climbed back into the top twenty after starting the year at #82.

Even more impressive was the performance of Juan Carlos Ferrero. The former #1 and one-time French Open champ had languished in the mid tiers of the sport for years and hadn't claimed a trophy since Monte Carlo in 2003. His five-plus year drought ended in Casablanca back in April, but he didn't stop there. He scored key wins over Hewitt, Gilles Simon and Gael Monfils that helped propel him back to #20. A couple of opening round losses to end the year dropped him back a few spots, but Ferrero's thirty-plus spot jump puts the almost-thirty year old Spaniard back amongst the contenders for the big titles.

Biggest Debuts

There was another class of upward movers this year -- those who seemingly came out of nowhere to grab headlines, or at least ranking points, in 2009. Some had made their first appearance years ago while others had ploughed their course at smaller events. Either way, they all saw their rankings jump out of the triple digits and into solid contender territory.

I've already opined on John Isner's phenomenal year, but it's worth repeating one more time. The 6'9" American jumped 110 spots to end 2009 with his highest career ranking thanks, in part to a solid summer and a third-round defeat of Andy Roddick at the U.S. Open. He earned his first seed in a professional tournament in Bangkok and, not so quietly, became the third best player in this country. Isner's got a lot of things going for him, including a rocket serve, and he's been working on his ground game as well, which could make him a force Down Under. Here's hoping he helps usher in the next generation of greats.

Rajeev Ram is also doing his part for American men's tennis. Along with his second Challenger title, the Indiana native won both the singles and doubles trophies in Newport. After a career of playing players mostly ranked in the triple-digits, Rajeev broke through this year, beating Sam Querrey and Mardy Fish among others. His successes allowed him to jump one more position than even Isner as he finished the year #79.

If you thought these guys made big strides in 2009, it's nothing compared to what Horacio Zeballos did. The twenty-four year old Argentine has been pro since 2003 but didn't play on the main Tour until this year. He didn't even qualify for a tournament until Rhode Island, but he won four Challenger events and even his opening round at Flushing Meadows. Then in St. Petersburg he made his very first final by winning only his second through fifth Tour matches and sky-rocketing from #199 last year to #45 today. Sure he hasn't beaten a great player yet, but for someone no one's ever heard of yet, he's not doing too bad.

Biggest Droppers

Of course for every rank gained, one must be lost.

I have to say I'm a bit surprised that Russia's Dmitry Tursunov didn't have a better year. Once ranked #20 he had a slow start to the year, getting upset in more than a few first rounds. Last year's finalist in Indianapolis, Tursunov fought to the title in Eastborne, the sixth of his career. He made the quarters in Indy, but despite a good seeding and a few bye rounds, he proceeded to lose four matches in a row, ending 2009 after a four set loss to Marc Gicquel at the U.S. Open. His recent results caused him to fall farther than anyone else in the top hundred -- from #22 to #89.

Mario Ancic's move was only slightly less dramatic. The former top-ten player is now ranked #95, fifty-nine spots below where he started the year -- though it's not really his fault. Early in the year he didn't lose to anyone he should have beaten, but a recurrence of the mono that sidelined him for part of 2008 took him out of the season in May. The six-foot-five Croat said he'll make his return to the Tour in January, tuning up for the big leagues by playing a few challenger events.

Then there's David Nalbandian who kicked off 2009 by winning his tenth trophy in Sydney and making the semis in Buenos Aires. But hip surgery took him out of commission after Estoril and knocked him down to #64 -- he'd ended 2008 at #11. Nalbandian will be back though, the twenty-seven year old Argentine plans to compete in the next Grand Slam, where he was once a semifinalist. Hopefully he'll be back in good enough shape to get himself back to the top.

By the way, I've limited my commentary here to players still ranked in the double digits, but I'd be remiss if I left out Kei Nishikori. Last year's biggest positive mover and a quarterfinalist in Brisbane, he got off to a slow start in 2009. After that he only won a single match (over Gilles Muller in San Jose). Forced to pull out of the last three Majors with an elbow injury, the Japanese star is now ranked #420. Here's hoping for a quick recovery and return in the new decade.

Biggest Fizzlers

Perhaps more frustrating than falling steadily is when you get so close, but just can't make it. A couple players this year gathered up a ton of momentum, started to look like they could cause some damage, and then sputtered, spewed and ended up not really making much of a mark at all.

David Ferrer is still up there, ranked #17, a mere five positions below where he ended 2008. I'd complained much of last year that the Spaniard had held on to an unnecessarily high rank despite some mediocre performances. He began this year as if out to prove me wrong -- he did well in the early months, making the semis in Johannesburg and the title matches in Dubai and Barcelona. But once the summer came Ferer struggled to put together back-to-back wins. Outside his miraculous win in Barcelona during the Davis Cup finals, he couldn't beat the top players and often lost to those ranked far lower than him. Going into 2010 needs to get his act together if he wants to stay in the top twenty.

It's a little unfair to put 6'10" Croat Ivo Karlovic in this group, since he was part of so many classic matches this year, but for a man who served 890 aces this year -- more than a hundred more than any other player -- he sure lost a lot of matches. That's not to say he didn't put up a fight -- he famously fired off a record fifty-five bombs in his first round in Paris only to lose to Hewitt, and he spent nearly six hours on court with Radek Stepanek in the Davis Cup semis. He's played an inordinate number of five-set matches this year -- and only won one of them. Though he got himself close to the top twenty, he's only had a single match victory since Cincinnati, where he lost in the second round. Now ranked thirty-seventh in the world, Karlovic has to show he's got more than a big serve, as he's already proven that's not enough to win.

Israel's Dudi Sela had the chance to be a real force on the men's Tour this year. After finishing the runner-up in Beijing in 2008, he put in a solid performance as a qualifier in Melbourne, causing two upsets before losing in the third round. He followed that up with a semifinal in Memphis and two big Davis Cup wins against Sweden. He climbed from #112 to start the year all the way to #29 in July. But seven opening round losses in a row, including one to Shao-Xuan Zeng ranked #393 in the world, dropped him back down fourteen spots. Kind of makes you wonder if he can really compete with the big boys.

The Closest Calls

Well, maybe not the closest, but of course there were a ton of players I've missed here. On the positive side Fernando Gonzalez and Taylor Dent both put their names back in the ring while Marco Chiudinelli and Leonardo Mayer made their own names known. On the down side Mardy Fish and Robby Ginepri both suffered some precipitous drops while Ernests Gulbis and Dennis Istomin came so close to notching big wins, only to falter again. Though they didn't make my lists this year, I will give them all a year of probation -- hopefully in twelve months they'll be able to either back up their performances or turn them around.

My Predictions

So back in April I made a forecast about what the top five would look like at the end of 2009. Of course I was wrong, but everyone in my top four certainly had their chance to make a run for #1 this year. That being said, here's my call for year-end 2010 -- feel free to heckle:

  1. Roger Federer
  2. Novak Djokovic
  3. Juan Martin Del Potro
  4. Rafael Nadal
  5. Andy Murray
  6. Robin Soderling
  7. Nikolay Davydenko
  8. Marin Cilic
  9. Andy Roddick
  10. Gael Monfils

Be sure to check back next year to see how I do, and tell me who you think will be on top in the new decade!

See you then!

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